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More Blessing

Zimbabwe 6 November 2006 (continued) Monday afternoon and Leonard is taking me to the poor part of town. I don’t know what to call these places: ghetto, shanty town, township, community, urban poor, slums. What I’m talking about is row after row of cement cell dwellings—one or two bedrooms—with a corrugated iron roof. Often there is no indoor plumbing, and sometimes not even electricity, so an outhouse stands in the barren, hard-dirt yard. These homes can cover a hillside, connected only by the dirt roads pocked with potholes. Chickens, goats and sometimes even cattle wander between the structures. Children play football in the roads lined with gutters that carry the waste. Thousands of people will live in such communities.

As you probably already know, Mugabe plowed under these slums all over Zimbabwe earlier in 2006. Most of these urban-poor homes had extra shacks and lean-tos built onto the cement structures, where more people lived and slept—often extended family. Leonard tells me the entire country is shaking its head about the president’s action. What could he possibly have hoped to gain? Maybe he thought since his greatest opposition comes from among the poor, then if he made their daily life even more difficult, they would not have the energy or resources to organize government resistance and protests. The result now is that thousands of people sleep outside on the streets, and where one room used to hold a sleeping family of six or seven, now ten or twenty share a room, which means even more sexual abuse of children.

Inside, I cringe. The faces of my South African children have followed me here, and as I question Leonard further, I realize I was naive to hope that the rampant raping of young girls and boys might be limited to what? A township? A province? A nation? More like a continent.

Leonard has already told me that during the Kids’ Clubs and child-oriented workshops, the subject of sexual abuse often comes up. When the children speak of being “harassed,” they mean beaten, or worse. He estimates that 80% of the aids orphans he knows are being abused. “Since Mugabe bulldozed what little shelter many of these people had, destroying bedrooms, there are more incidents of child molestation, incest and child abuse. Having no privacy has just made it even wore.”

What amazes me is that Mugabe’s “clean-up” occurred in every town in Zimbabwe. I had read somewhere about Harare losing its outskirt communities, but I didn’t know his soldiers had destroyed such homes everywhere. The president gave no explanation. Leonard says, during the winter, it is a particular hardship.

We drive past piles of rubble, all that is left of everything but the concrete one- or two-bedroom cells, which are all that stand between the lines of broken brick and wood and corrugated iron. Leonard parks in front of house number 55. “This family used to have nine children. Four of them have died. There are seven grandchildren. I want you to meet one of them. He’s very clever.”

I duck to enter the dark home. An old man sits on a chair. The grandmother, or gogo, greets Leonard with a wide, nearly toothless smile. We sit down on wooden benches. There is an open fire that she has been cooking over. Children sit on the floor eating cornmeal out of a bowl with their hands. I ask the gogo about her grandchildren and Leonard translates. She replies, “They are blessings seven times over.”

As my eyes adjust to the dark, I see the grandfather appears partially blind. I speak to him and take his hand, thanking him for having me in his home. Both he and his wife smile now, so I start asking them questions since the boy Leonard wants me to meet is off playing football somewhere and is being fetched. I am breathing through my mouth, the smells are so strong. The two-room home is clean, but every corner is piled high with blankets or boxes or clothing. I’m looking in my heart, searching for what to ask, realizing I don’t like being here. This brave elderly couple, raising nine children when they are too old and disabled to work in a society where they get nothing but terror from the government. I don’t like coming face to face with this level of poverty and deprivation. And I’m disgusted with myself. I blurt out the first question that I can think of, and regret it immediately. Yet, when I glance at Leonard, I see his eyes recognizing and even embracing the elderly couple. He touches their arms and shoulders often, hoists one of the toddlers onto his lap, and smiles. His actions put me at ease.

My question? I have asked the grandparents what gives them hope. The gogo says, “I don’t know how it happens. Things come to an end. I say prayers to God. I am granted strength from God daily.”

Then I ask what her prayers are for her grandchildren? “I pray they could grow to be responsible adults and could live on their own.” I ask what about her grandchildren makes her proud? “When they come home from church, relating what they heard in church and stories. I am happy others are teaching them.”

I look around at the peeling paint, remember Leonard talking about asbestos bricks. As my eyes have adjusted, I can make out the wooden furniture. I sit on the edge of a very hard sofa. “Tell me their names.” Lillian. Melusi, which means “shepherd.” More Blessing, who is very smart. Nasha, which means, “grace.” And there are more.

Leonard has told me that this gogo attended the granny workshop Katherine’s organization sponsored, so I ask her what stays with her from that? She tells me she remembers now that every person must be treated as a person, regardless of their age. “Don’t harass or force them because this makes a child lose esteem.” She shoots her toothless smile in my direction and says, “After learning this I know now that even if I’m old, I don’t have a right to shout at a child. This messes up the child.” Then she tells me the story of Moses being found in a small basket in a river. She tells it as if expecting me never to have heard it before. I listen to her ancient, survivor, scratchy voice. “They didn’t realize what that baby would turn out to be. We must not look down on small children.”

She has been married since 1955—that’s 51 years. She and her husband met at school. They went to the same school together. He smiles when I ask him that question, how they met. A freezer in the corner groans and the light flickers. The grandparents say their greatest challenge is food and school fees. She asks me, “Do you have anyone who can help with school fees?” She also asks for soap for washing. These are the ages of the grandchildren they are raising because the children of this elderly couple are dead from aids: 13, 9, 6, 4 months, 17, 19, 18. An orange kitten wanders into our midst and leaves again, ignored. The grandfather used to work as a messenger boy. When I ask him how they managed to stay married so long, he says, “You must not treat each other badly. Treat each other as friends, as parents treat children, correct one another as if the other is your child.”

The boy we’ve all been waiting for, More Blessing, finally shows up with his cousin Sasha. More Blessing is 9. We talk football, of course. More Blessing says he is a midfielder and his team always wins. I have a photo of this boy and me, taken by Leonard. You can see the aids lesions on his cheeks as he smiles. I, as always, look very white. More Blessing says English is his favorite subject and indeed, we are able to exchange a few words, but Leonard still translates most of the conversation. It turns out that Leonard and his wife have had More Blessing over to their house for weekends, so the boy has a special bond with Leonard.

I ask More Blessing what he wants to become when he grows up.

Only now as I type this in The Netherlands, do I realize that a boy like that, suffering from aids, probably won’t get to grow up. Why was I so bent on getting everyone to focus on the future with that question? Maybe because the present was so unbearable. I saw a movie last night where two aids-infected prostitutes in Liberia say, “Why worry about something that can kill you in 10 years when there are so many other things that can kill you today?”

More Blessing knows exactly what he wants to become: a commander in the army. He wants to be president, and he wants to be a police man. As I speak to him, Leonard puts an arm around the boy’s shoulder in a protective gesture that makes me swallow to keep the tears at bay. Sometimes he gets to sleep at the hospital, More Blessing says. I ask him about his parents, dead from aids, but I don’t say the disease’s name.

More Blessings says, “I feel lots of pain when I think of my father. Especially when I go to sleep. Then I also think about respecting my grandparents.”

As he tells me how he writes his feelings down, a fly lands on my face. I remember an argument I once had with a publisher about giving a face to the children the rest of the world sees as blacks with flies on their faces. Now that’s me. Sort-of.

I go back to More Blessing’s desire to become a soldier. I ask him who he wants to fight against. “Everyone who hurts my family.” When Leonard takes our photo, More Blessing tucks in his shirt and puts back his shoulders like the fighter he is.

I ask him about the children’s workshop he attended, sponsored by Katherine’s organization. That’s where Leonard met him. More Blessing says he remembers drawing his Tree of life, and he liked writing things about his family.

Leonard has told More Blessing that I am writing a book about a boy like him for children in The Netherlands. So I ask him what he wants to say. More Blessing says, “Write about the hardship one faces because of death.” I stare at his old-man’s face as he adds, “Tell them death is not good.”

So he knows, I think. Of course he knows. He knows that every afternoon he plays football with his friends that there may not be many afternoons like that one.

As I leave, I thank the gogo and her husband. She says she is grateful for the church teaching the children.

In the car, I dig out my water bottle from my bag. It is the same black backpack my Julia used to carry her books in on her way to high school when she took the train to Schiedam from our home. Thoughts zip through my mind like, isn’t being a child all about learning and growing for a future? Take away a child’s future and what does he become?

Leonard starts talking, anticipating my questions. I take in the information, grateful for something more to scribble so I won’t have to figure out what I’m feeling. More Blessing is on ARVs, when Katherine’s organization can get a hold of the drugs. The grandfather is blind. The father died of aids and was a psychiatric patient with TB. The mother was also HIV+, which is how More Blessing came down with aids, contracting it when he was born. He’s gaining weight at the moment, and is very good about making sure he takes the pills on time.

As we drive past piles of bricks and rubble, all that is left over from the homes Mugabe’s men bulldozed under, I try counting the bricks to keep myself from crying. I hear Leonard’s voice from far away say, “I’m scared he’ll get too attached to me.” More Blessing visits Leonard sometimes for a weekend. Then he plays with Leonard’s baby. I blurt out, isn’t it cruel to show him Leonard’s home where he sees a family with two parents and a middle-class home with food, then send him back to the abject poverty of his grandparents’ shack? Well, I don’t say it that way, but that’s what I mean and Leonard understands. He chooses not to hear the condemnation in my voice and says, here More Blessing must play outside because there is nowhere else. He must sleep in the corridor because there is no bedroom. He gets one meal a day, when he’s lucky. The bathroom is outside. Children have no privacy. Twenty people sleep in one bedroom. More Blessing’s best moment in his life, as described to Leonard, was when his father brought him home a T-shirt.

Then Leonard looks at me and says, “It’s worth it to give him something that makes him really happy. With kids you have to be very honest. I tell him we cannot adopt him, but I want to give him what I can in the time he has left.”

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